Barbaresco's famous Pajè vineyard provides Dolcetto for Roagna's Dolcetto d'Alba (roagna.com)

Medicine for Thirst: Roagna Dolcetto d'Alba & Even Lighter Reds from the Piedmont

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To drinkers of Piedmont wine, Roagna's Dolcetto d'Alba is well known. Vintage after vintage, it wows with freshness and purity. Haven't tried it? It's perfect for these waning days of summer. A great companion for late-August meals, which, in my apartment, are vegetable and fruit focused. No point in stuffing myself, stuck in our city's last stint of urban heat.

The 2018 Roagna Dolcetto d'Alba is a crimson color. The handsome shade is perplexingly deep for a wine you can see through. The expression on the nose is a concoction of cherries and blueberries, with just an ounce of earthy grit. With some air, there are delicate aromas of raw walnuts and spicy cloves. Upon sipping, flavors of wild strawberries, red cherries, and mint grace the palate. The wine is for immediate consumption, with a straight spine of acidity and shoulders of well-placed, well-integrated tannin. A serious wine that is so drinkable. The kind that disappears quickly, even if it's just you at the table.

Far from the potholed streets of the Big Apple is the Pajè vineyard in Barbaresco. It's perfectly nestled in the hills near the Tanaro River, which helps the vines stay cool during the summers and warm during the winters. This is a prized location, one of Roagna's most important sites, and the place-of-origin for many of the winery's most coveted bottlings. Their Crichët Pajè wine, for example, comes from the vineyard's best Nebbiolo plot. But Dolcetto also grows here, and this fruit makes up much of the Roagna Dolcetto d'Alba. Vines averaging 50 years old are planted to the lower portion of the vineyard's southern and south-western facing slope. This exquisite terrior consists of limestone rich marl. In addition to the grapes from Pajè, Dolcetto from Roagna's holdings in Barbaresco's Carso vineyard are added. Just west of Pajè, Carso vines are similarly protected by the Tanaro's influence. The soil is a bit different, with a higher concentration of clay and sand. This site's exposure is to the east. Both the land in Pajè and Carso have been part of the estate since the 1950s. In the cellar, the grapes are added to a pied de cuve, fermenting naturally in large wooden casks. Afterwards, the wine stays on the skins for a remarkable 90 to 100 days. Before release, it ages for 12 months in neutral oak barrels. This doesn't exactly sound like the upbringing for a light Italian red... but it is! That said, the Roagna Dolcetto d'Alba isn't the lightest of the bunch.

Carso vineyard, with Tanaro River just visible on far left, and the town of Barbaresco on the hill. (roagna.com)

The Piedmontese frequently enjoy translucent reds during their afternoon and evening meals. Often served at a chilly cellar temperature, or even cooler. Dolcetto, Barbera, and a handful of other regionally important grapes, are grown and vinified with fresh drinking in mind. However, we rarely get to celebrate these products in the United States. The wines from Piedmont that are destined to fill the American appetite, in my experience, are typically the fuller ones, with more concentrated flavor and richer or chewier structure. Not ideal meal-mates for light dining on a sweltering or humid day. But the brighter alternatives? They're made for it. They're truly medicine for thirst.

Pelaverga Piccolo, a lesser known grape hailing from the Verduno region of Barolo, is a great example of a treasured local varietal that makes wine of astonishing clarity, in both color and taste. The 2019 Fratelli Alessandria Pelaverga Speziale, even more transparent in the glass than the Roagna Dolcetto, offers a very clear shade of red. The nose and palate are exuberant but articulated, with fresh pepper, pine, dark citrus, and cherry. That spicy pepperiness is a trademark of this grape. For best drinking, the wine benefits from half an our in the fridge. The chill adds a brightness that helps lift the fruit and adds a subtle, enticing tang. If you ever visit Verduno, you'll see café patrons with glasses full of this regionally prized elixir. It is actually thought to be an aphrodisiac. With that in mind, we're lucky to have the bottles that we do in the States, as there isn't much to go around. When I reached out to Vittore Alessandria, of Fratelli Alessandria, for some details on Pelaverga, he forwarded me information from Verduno Pelaverga DOC's official website. "In 2020 the Verduno Pelaverga producers are about 16, the cultivated hectares are 22 and the total bottles are about 160,000," it read. That's not a whole lot.

Verduno, home to the Pelaverga Piccolo grape and the winery of Fratelli Alessandria. (pelavergaverduno.com)

This wine from Vittore comes from six different sites in Verduno, with a general soil type of calcareous limestone. The area is most famous for creating the snappiest style of Nebbiolo-based Barolo, but here Pelaverga Piccolo also thrives. Fruit is picked by hand in the second half of September from vines averaging 20 years of age. Fermentation begins with indigenous yeasts and lasts 6 to 8 days in steel tank. Aging happens in steel or concrete for 5 to 6 months, then is finished in bottle for 1 to 2 more. The wine is released in the spring, just in time for the fresh produce and warmer temperatures that the wine so generously pairs with. In his message to me, Vittore reiterated what the back label of his Paleverga states: the bottle is best "to drink in good company." I couldn't agree more. The wine is for laughing, flirting, relaxing, and nibbling.

In contrast to the jovial qualities of the Pelaverga, the other night I meditated on the 2019 Rovero Grignolino d'Asti while trying the vintage for the first time. The memory of this experience has been following me since. I've been especially reflecting on the wine's structure. In terms of color, the Rovero is a completely clear, earth-toned red. The nose is savory and smoky, with an underlying fruit aroma of crushed ripe raspberries. The palate displays flavors of dried red fruit and orange zest. And, though I knew this already, I kept having the thought: "easy drinking" really doesn't translate to "lack of structure" at all. This wine has such a uniquely satisfying mouthfeel. A firm tannic presence appears on the tongue, out of nowhere, right before you're ready to swallow a taste. Every subsequent sip washes away the sensation with refreshing acidity and fruit, only to replace it again. A compelling cycle that tested my idea of what "mouthfeel" really means.

Enrico Rovero, of the Rovero estate, was very helpful after I requested information on the grape, the vines, and the cellar work. He let me know that the name "Grignolino" might refer to the quantity of seeds that the grape has - more than most used for wine production. In my mind, this could be what produces the one-of-a-kind structure that made a great, lasting impression on me. The grapes come from organically farmed, chemical free vineyards in the Monferrato Hills, hand harvested in September. Native fermentation takes place, with maceration time lasting 10 days in steel. The wine is then aged in tank for 4 months. Enrico explains, "it is bottled young to preserve aromatics." He also advises pairing the wine with "roasts, steaks, hearty casseroles or stews." I definitely prefer his less heavy suggestions of "grilled vegetables, pasta dishes" and "salami." However, Enrico has far more experience with the wine than I do, and I plan to experiment with heartier foods when autumn arrives.

Grassy vineyards of Rovero, free of chemical herbicides and fertilizers. (rovero.it)

Exploring lighter reds from the Piedmont led me on a journey I didn't expect to go on. In this email offering, I only touched on the regional significance of the grapes, and the wines that they turn into. They hail from some of the best land, created by some of the area's best producers, and offer a plethora of aromas and flavors - some of which you simply cannot find in Piedmont wines more grand in nature. So, grab some bottles, give them a chill if you'd like, and end the summer of 2020 in a lighter, fresher way than you'd probably thought possible.

Special thanks to Vittore Alessandria and Enrico Rovero for the assistance! Grazie! David Hatzopoulos

Roagna 2018 Dolcetto D'Alba

Much of the fruit that goes into this bottle comes from the Pajè vineyard, also home to some of Roagna's flagship Barbaresco's. Here vines average 50 years of age. Grapes also come from the nearby Carso vineyard. Harvest takes place by hand in September. After picking, grapes are scrutinized for quality. Fruit is added to a pied de cuvee, started with indegenous yeasts, and fermentation follows for 10 days in large wooden casks. Then, for a remarkable 90-100 days, the wine remains with the skins to macerate. Lastly, it ages in neutral oak barrels for a year. With such extensive maceration and a whole 12 months in wood, even if neutral, I'm intrigued that this Dolcetto is always as clean as it is. The wine is a sultry red, but clean and clear in the glass. On the nose, there are aromas pitted cherries, cherry leaves, blueberries, and healthy earth. The palate shows flavors of wild strawberries, cherry, and fresh mint. Roagna's Dolcetto is soft in mouthfeel, with a lovely pitch of acidity. A fantastic bottle, year after year. David Hatzopoulos

  • red
  • 8 in stock
  • $24.99

  • Organic

Rovero 2018 Grignolino d'Asti

From organically grown grapes in the Grignolino d'Asti DOC. The vines are planted to fields that see zero chemical treatment, no herbicides or fertilizers. Fruit is harvested in September then fermented in stainless steel tanks with a 10 day maceration period before malo occurs naturally. The wine is aged in steel for an additional 4 months before release. The color is a clear red with rusted highlights. The nose has a hint of cigar ash, a little beach grass, with a foundation of freshly picked raspberries, sun dried tomatoes, and velvety sage leaves. The palate displays flavors of raisined cranberries and cherries, with an accent of orange peel and star anise. The structure of this wine is my favorite thing about it. Very drinkable, with flavors that are expressive but not concentrated, and acidity that moves each sip along. The finish, however, is a lasting, moderately tannic kiss on the tongue. A delight to drink. A light wine with a lot to show off. David Hatzopoulos

  • red
  • 10 in stock
  • $17.99

  • Organic
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Alessandria, Fratelli 2019 Verduno Pelaverga

Made from the Pelaverga Piccolo grape, specifically grown in the northern Barolo sub-region of Verduno. Consisting of fruit from many sites: Riva Rocca, Campasso, Boscatto, Neirane, Sotto Orti, Galleria. Guyot trained vines averaging 20 years of age. Fruit added to a pied de cuvee, fermented 6 to 8 days in stainless steel tanks. Aging is done in either stainless or cement for 5 to 6 months, plus an additional month or two in bottle. In the glass, the wine shows a clear red, with nuances of pink and orange. The nose on this wine is terrific. Aromatically sophisticated like a cocktail. Freshly milled peppercorns, pine needles, and grapefruit peel, with the simplest bass note of firm red cherry. It tastes much like it smells, plus salinity and stoniness that adds zip and focus to the palate. The wine's structure relies on this assertiveness, since it is almost free of tannin (in the best way). Completely refreshing. Chill it on a hot day. David Hatzopoulos

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $24.99